Have we plunged that low in Maths and Science?

Recently I chanced upon a report on Malaysia’s standing in the world in terms reading, Maths and science. The PISA (Programme for International Students Assessment) reports on OECD’s (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) countries young people ability to use their knowledge and skills in real lives.

PISA is an international comparative survey of 15-year-olds’ knowledge and skills in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy.  It measures how well young adults have acquired the knowledge and skills that are required to function as successful members of society.  This is the first time Malaysia joined the programme to gauge our standing in the educational world specifically in reading, Maths and Science.

Among the OECD countries the top performers in reading literacy are Finland (536 points) and Korea (539) while Shanghai, China (556) is the top performer in non OECD countries.  Reading literacy encompasses the range of situations in which people read, the different ways written texts are presented, and the variety of ways that readers approach and use texts, from the functional and finite, such as finding a particular piece of practical information, to the deep and far-reaching, such as understanding other ways of doing, thinking and being. The lowest score in OECD is Mexico (425) while Khrgyztan is the lowest in non OECD with a score of 314. The mean score is 494. Where did Malaysia stand in the reading literacy scale? Read the summary of reports about Malaysia here:

  • Students in Malaysia attained an average score on the PISA reading literacy scale that was below the average attained in all OECD countries and equivalent to the average scores estimated for Brazil, Colombia, Miranda-Venezuela, Montenegro, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago.  In Malaysia, 56% of students are estimated to have a proficiency in reading literacy that is at or above the baseline needed to participate effectively and productively in life. This compares to 81% in the OECD countries, on average.
  • Students in Malaysia attained an average score on the mathematical literacy scale below the average attained in all OECD countries. In Malaysia, 41% of students are proficient in mathematics at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the kind of skills that enable them to use mathematics in ways that are considered fundamental for their future development.  In Malaysia, there was no statistically significant difference in the performance of boys and girls in mathematical literacy.
  • Malaysian students were estimated to have an average score on the scientific literacy scale that was significantly higher than that estimated for the lowest scoring OECD country, Mexico.
  • In Malaysia, 57% of students are proficient in science at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the science competencies that will enable them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology. This compares to 82% in the OECD countries, on average.
  • In Malaysia, there was a statistically significant gender difference in scientific literacy, favouring girls.

The results is quite damning for a country aspiring to be a fully developed nation by 2020. And the students surveyed were students of the PPSMI generation. As far as this report is concerned, we are on par with countries like Indonesia, Montenegro, Jordan or Trinidad Tobago. We are even lower than Thailand and way below our kiasu neighbour. If Vietnam and Brunei joined the fray, I am worried that we may fall below them as well.

The report only confirmed what we have feared to be happening to our students. Many blamed the results on our inexperience in the PISA arena as well as our overly emphasis on examination. Having looked the overall result we can see that the latter excuse is not quite valid. Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong are countries that famously exam oriented. Reports of students committing suicides as a results depression due to exam pressures are not uncommon in these countries. So why did their students did very well in PISA while ours didn’t? I had a peek at some samples of the PISA questions and it came clear why our students failed miserably. PISA questions are mostly high level, text heavy, and graphical where as our exam questions are mainly low level recall and comprehension questions. Unless and until we change the  content and structure of our exam questions so that more questions on high level thinking skills are asked, we would continue to be a nation of  producing huge number of A+ but unthinking students. Our teachers are so good at producing large number of A+ students at every public exam, one sometime wonder if these A+ are a true reflection of the students overall creative and critical thinking capabilities. We cannot blame the curriculum either because the notion of critical and creative thinking skills have been a major aspect integrated in to the schools syllabi since the KBSR and KBSM days. If the results of the public exam is the true reflections of their academic capabilities then why do we fared so badly in PISA? The mind boggles.


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